Sybille, by Marion Meade

With a footnote of observations based on Kathleen McGowan's The Book of Love (Touchstone 2009).

Before the start of her book, Meade gives us a note about her understanding regarding the Cathars:

It is important to note that not much is known about Cathar beliefs and practices, which throws the door wide open to speculation of all types.  I reviewed one historian's guess that the Cathars were named Bogomils not after their Bulgarian origins but after the word "bugger" and suggested they were practitioners of buggery, referring to male homosexual behavior, since they discouraged intercourse that could lead to more spirits being trapped in flesh.  This is just ignorance, in this instance being spread by a historian of some repute, Thomas Cahill, in his book Mysteries of the Middle Ages.  Cahill obviously did not do his homework on this subject.

We will take a brief look at the end of this review at another, less ignorant and more flattering speculation by Kathleen McGowan in her 2009 book The Book of Love.

Let's focus on the life described in Marion Meade's Sybille.  

Sybille is a simple title for a complexly woven story (William Morrow and Company, 1983).  Sybille is the name of Marion Meade's main character, a thirteenth-century woman poet, some of whose verse becomes popularly sung, making her a female troubadour.

She was born and raised in Toulouse of a noble Catholic family.  She is surrounded by relatives, friends and neighbors who are Cathars, also known as the "good Christians" in contrast to Catholic Christians.

As she grows up, the war against the Cathars begins and she ends up taking part in it.  Historians have heard the rumor that the leader of this crusade was felled by an unknown woman manning a stone- throwing catapult.  The identity of this woman is not known to historians, but readers of this novel will find out who it was, and who composed a ditty about her deed that is sung far and wide in celebration for the short respite this well-aimed rock bought.

Why would Sybille, a good Catholic, take part in a war against Catholic forces blessed by the Pope? Because they were making war on the land, her land, and were not discriminating between Cathars or Catholics in their violence.  The Pope's purpose may have been to stamp out this heresy, but the nobility at the head of this army was more concerned with taking this land called Languedoc and making it part of their own land- holdings and placing it all under the French crown.  

Meade is very true to the history of the crusade and fits her characters into that tumultuous time, with literally decades of war followed by some continuing violence but mainly displaced by the horrors of the Inquisition.  Near the end we become witnesses to the final surrender of the last Cathar stronghold, Montsegur.  

The actual end on was a surprise to me, one I will not reveal --of course.  If you get the book to read it, don't read the ending unless you come upon it naturally.

The severe tumult of her times reduced Sybille, a noblewoman, to a stinking skeleton in a cruel Dominican Catholic jail where there is hardly any food or water and no sanitary accommodations: she lives with and in her own filth.  She changes from hating a rat in her cell to acknowledging he was a fellow creature and prisoner.  She is being brought to the brink of death to force her to lead the Inquisition to one of her Cathar relatives.  

The most surprising thing to me about this book is that Sybille's experience makes her question and dislike all religion.  I fully expected her, given her cruel treatment by her own church, to become a Cathar like her sister and other she loved.  But the cruelties inflicted on her by a particular Catholic monk do not translate, in her, to hatred of her church, but instead cause her to simply question it.  She places blame on the Inquisitor as a person, whom she apparently spurned in her youth and now sees as a villein seeking to get even with her personally by making her fear him, and she suspects also that through her he is wreaking his vengeance on the noble class that she represents.  

When she finally comes out of this ordeal she is an escapee in hiding, she is reduced to living as anonymously as possible in a one room shack with her daughter and working with her hands for a living. She adjusts to this new life because it is a life, something she thought she would not be around to experience during the last days of her imprisonment when she was close to death and knew it.

Although she spends her last days in company of the heretics, hunted by her own church as a rebel, she is not moved toward embracing the Cathar faith.  Her questioning of the very nature of God, whether Catholic or Cathar, has inured her against institutional religions it appears.  

That questioning takes the form of a complaint, on page 310, against the Cathar God of her husband. This God taught her husband that her flesh was unclean for him to touch, that humans are sparks of the divine entrapped in flesh on a world created by an evil god.  Speaking to her husband in her mind she says:

The next day (page 311) she has this very honest exchange with her Inquisitor:

The good news is that she does escape, and a sad and poignant moment arrives on page 332 when she sneaks into her old church and remembers her childhood certainty that God was there and now knows it to be a lie.  "God had never been there."

She finds her older sister Fabrisse in Montsegur and attempts to talk her out of her fanaticism and have her escape, with her, so she will not burn.  This leads to an exchange between Sybille and Fabrisse, a Cathar perfect, that reveals a smug, superior attitude toward her little sister (pages 408-409):

Sybille protests that her experience in a Dominican prison had taught her much about life, and she pleads with her sister to escape the coming conflagration and live, rather than die on this rock.  Fabrisse again replied snottily when Sybille asks her if she does not care for this life (page 410):

We will return to this "church of love" idea in a footnote on Kathleen McGowan's interpretation of the Cathar faith.

As already revealed above, Fabrisse was not the person for whose protection she had suffered so greatly.  The Inquisitors knew where Fabrisse was, she could do no harm under siege on a rock.

It was Sybille's husband they were after.  

He was never a real husband to her because even at their arranged wedding his heart was already with the Cathar cause.  He ended up recommending she take a lover (Cathars were not so picky about such things among their rank-and-file believers, it was only the perfects who were expected to be strictly celibate). Then he abandoned her, renouncing sex and the eating of meat to become a perfect and a leader and missionary of renown in this movement who was very hard to find. Hence the Inquisitorial inquisitiveness.

She took her husband's advice after duly resenting it and studied the rules of courtly love to impose on and control her lover, a knight whom she chose.  Much of the story revolves around this love affair which produced much heartache and a child.  Heartache? Yes, it was a complicated love story with her never quite being able to accept him for what he quite frankly declared himself to be.  He said he could not love a woman, was not capable of it, and thus would not guarantee sexual exclusiveness or loyalty.  She took him anyway, and tried but failed to change him.

Everyone of the characters described in this novel is richly woven with a plethora of good and bad qualities.  Sybille is not perfect either.  However, she comes off as a very likable heroine, which makes reading the story pleasant.  One feels for her during every trial and travail, but one also celebrates her every victory, and savors each moment of bliss she experiences, however short-lived.  

Sybille is a grand, epic story.  Well worth reading.

Given Meade's description of the Cathar church as the church of love (as it was called among their own), it is interesting to see how far Kathleen McGowan takes this theme in her book The Book of Love (Touchstone 2009).

This is how McGowan has one of her characters describe the religion (page 58):

Very much like Meade, McGowan also solves some historical mysteries such as what the 'treasure' of Montsegur was: it was the Book of Love, of course. And how did it come into the possession of the Cathars?   By way of Jesus' wife, Mary Magdalene, who settled in what is now southern France with her children and this treasure, the book written by her husand from which she and her offspring taught a new religion to the native population.  

One of their very distant offspring carried the treasure off the mountain and hid it very well, since it has only now been found again (read McGowan's story, the finding of this book, with supernatural help, IS her story)!

How does McGowan cope with the histroical fact that the special scripture revered by the Cathars was a version of the Gospel of John?  It is part of the disinformation campaign from that time which is even now being fed and maintained by the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church, which, thanks to McGowan's character Maureen, possesses the Book of Love, is still maintaining this historical charade.  

But that Catholics want to do what is right.  They are now a benevolent church, no longer malevolent, and they are slowly implementing the teachings of the Book of Love, reforming themselves, but at the same time protecting it from potential misuse.  Misuse?

Maureen, McGowan's main character, is aghast as she sees the Vatican spokesperson lying to the press about the existence of the book she brought them, showing them a very old copy of the Gospel of John to them as if it were what had been brought to them.

Her anger is diffused by the revelation that this is a strategy for the good of the people who, if the book were delivered to them, would stop all spiritual striving and say to themselves that all that need be known is now known and in this book.  In other words the whole of the Christian world would become fundamentalist overnight and place their faith in a book rather than strive to find their path to enlightenment in Divine love.  OK-fine.  

McGowan's character slowly reveals, through the spirit-Jesus's own words to her main character, the essence of his teachings in the Book of Love.  I did get to that part, and was perplexed since I had read those same teachings in several New Age type publications, especially ones expounding on Buddhist themes.  What it all boils down to is that love is all that is real, all that endures, and ultimately all there is. Everything else is unreal and temporary.

One thing that caught my eye was McGowan's declaraton that this love of which Jesus speaks is all kinds of love including . . ."romantic, parental, fiflial, neighborly."  I presume she lists these because they are typically not being added to Divine Love, the creative power of the universe as some call it.  The reson this caught my eye is that I was very excited to see a similar declaration in the ecstatic poetry of Rumi where he says there is a gradient of love that ranges all the way from the divine to these other types of normaly experience loves.  He and McGowan are on the same page, "become Love" is his theme, as it is hers.

I appreciated the fact that McGowan's characters have recognized that there needs to be a blancing of the male and the female divine elements on the earth before love can reign as it is meant to.  But all in all, given that I have listened to these same themes being  played on various historical literary instruments, I was just a bit disappointed with the final message after 468 pages of intense reading.  Those pages contained drama, suspense, romance and violence and, what I liked best, many wonderful and colorful --if not colored to be wonderful-- anecdotal insights into history.

Where it all wrapped up into this grand finale I could not help but wonder: "is that all there is?"  I was a doubting Thomas, thinking there should be more insight into reality and life in the book that Jesus wrote, a book that has been awaited 2,000-plus years by a large portion of the world?  

I was reminded of the relatively famous popular song of that title (by Peggy Lee some decades ago, and now by Bette Middler), which suggests the singer is disappointed at the shallowness of life but does not want to transition to the other side for what is sure to be her final disappointment:

It is hard not  to end on this note, but I have to add one more thing.  Do I recommend this book?  I loved pieces of it, not all of it, I read it all because I wanted to read it all, but in places I was wishing it would move a bit faster.  McGowan says the original manuscript was three times as long and she had to delete entire characters with their story lines to bring it down to this size.  Thank goodness.

I was disappointed with the climax, so to speak (we have all had that experience, admit it!), but that was only because I read that same climax in the poetry of Rumi (and several other modern sources) from 800 years ago.  Had I not been a total Rumi/Love enthusiast, I might have seen this as the pivotal revelation that it really is and felt rellay enthused about it.

Rumi was pushed aside by his more orthodox Muslim brothers.  And so is and will be Maureen, who was actively being discredited by the Vatican when they showed she was wrong about her Jesus manuscript, it turns out to be a very old copy of the gospel of John.  Truly, first for Rumi and now Maureen: "The time returns."

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